Friday, March 23, 2007

The Perfect Song

An idea came into my head recently and I don't think I've really worked in through to its conclusion, but I'll put it out there anyway. I was trying to decide if there was a perfect song. Or maybe there's even more than one perfect song. I guess the problem is in the criteria, given that music taste is almost entirely subjective. I mean, someone bought all those Iron Maiden albums, and I know it wasn't me.

I don't know what constitutes the perfect song, but like Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, "I know it when I see it". (Yeah, I cheated. I had to look up the name of the justice in order to quote him.) But I think a perfect song should be concise, have a nice melody, and say what it's trying to say. I think there's a big difference between a great song and what one would call a perfect song. And a song need not be perfect in order to be great or fantastic or one of the best ever, or even your favorite song.

So far I've come up with one perfect song, "Yesterday" by the Beatles. It is just 2 minutes and 5 seconds of perfection. It's concise, it's eternally hummable, it's message is entirely clear, yet open to analysis. If you're into this sort of thing, it's relatively easy to play a passable version of it on the guitar. It is, simply put, a flawless song.

Without actually coming to the same conclusion, the rest of the world seems to agree with me. First off, the song is one of the 3 or 4 most played in radio history, totaling 7 million plays in the 20th century. (Incidentally, check out the list of most played songs. The one that kindof surprises me is "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. All of those other songs are from the 60s and 70s. The Police made the list even after giving the other guys a 20 year head start. "Every Breath You Take", by the way, though phenonmenal, is not a perfect song because of the misconception in its meaning. Sting meant it to be a stalkery kind of obsessive thing, and he was really surprised when people started using it as their wedding songs. Sorry about that long side note. Back to the point.) So yeah, it has been played on the radio more than almost any other song. It's also the most covered song in history with over 3,000 recorded covers. Three thousand covers is a hell of a lot. Obviously this is a song that strikes a chord with a lot of people.

Now I'm only arguing for the McCartney version of the song as perfection. The other mutations are inferior. Two examples are a capella versions by both En Vogue and Boys II Men. Both are interesting and still very good, but lack something. Even though they're both a capella, and seemingly stripped down, both are really overwrought with harmony and added melodrama. The McCartney version just lays it out there. I mean, it's just beautiful.

I'm afraid I don't have any concrete evidence, nor have I really argued my point very well. Well, actually I did provide some evidence, but still I don't know if I made the point. I just really feel that this is the case.

I tried to think if there were other perfect songs and searched in maybe some too obvious places. I thought of the Beatles, and they've got some other great ones, but maybe not perfect.

Led Zeppelin has some stunning songs, but I think they err on the epic side of perfection a lot. "Fool In The Rain", for example, is my favorite Zeppelin song, but that part in in the middle where it turns into a fiesta is really arbitrary and doesn't detract from the song at all, but somehow makes it imperfect. "Stairway To Heaven" is very good, but so out of the ordinary as songs go in terms of length and structure. There's no chorus and the lyrics are kindof nonsensical. And you may call me a blasphemer, but I think "Stairway" is overrated. It's not even one of my top 5 favorite Zeppelin songs. Let me take a step back from that statement. It's overrated in the way a billion dollars is overrated by Bill Gates. "Stairway" is fucking fantastic relative to all music as a whole, but in the Zeppelin subset it falls short for me. "That's The Way" is damn near close to perfect for me, but I am a little upset by the fact that you have to retune your guitar if you want to play it. Otherwise it would be so easy. And how many Zeppelin songs are easy to play on the guitar? Very few is the answer. This is a long side note, but I think guitar playability is what makes "Stairway" so popular. Jimmy Page is a fucking maestro on the guitar and most of their songs are near impossible to play for novice guitarists. "Stairway" is relatively easy and sounds good once you get it down.

I thought about "Baba O'Reilly" by The Who, but Kathy thinks the beginning part is weird and actually doesn't like the song, so I guess it's not perfect. "Brown Eyed Girl" might be a candidate. I can't really think of anything that takes away from it. That's the best I've come up with so far. Any thoughts on other perfect songs? Or on why you think "Yesterday" is or isn't?


Open Bar said...

Whoa whoa whoa... Your wife thinks the beginning part of Baba O'Riley (proper spelling) so you eliminate it? Glad I'm not married.

But going on your criteria for the perfect song (concise, hummable, says what it means), wouldn't the perfect song therefore be Happy Birthday? Fits all your criteria to a T. And forget about how many covers, ask how many people know every single word.

ChuckJerry said...

You have a good point about my criteria. But that means that my criteria are flawed, not the conclusion, per se.

Re: Baby O'Riley. First of all, that's not a complete sentence, but I know what you mean. Secondly, I was just using her experience to point out that music is subjective and for the life of me, I can't understand why anyone wouldn't love that song. Though now that I'm discussing it, The title of "Baba O'Riley" makes it an imperfect song. There's no reason a listener would ever guess the title, nor would they understand why it had that title even after knowing it. (Open Bar will elaborate in his next comment about Roger Daltry and some synthesizer machine. Or was it Pete Townsend?) Anyone with half a brain would think that the song was called "Teenage Wasteland" forever unless someone told them otherwise.

My point is made, but if you want to bitch me for being married, then I'm ok with that.

Open Bar said...

Yeah, I meant to add "sounds weird" but forgot, then I couldn't figure out how to change the comment.

But I firmly disagree with your point that anything that's weird about a song (e.g. naming it "Baba O'Riley", the middle part of "Fool in the Rain") therefore makes it imperfect. That's balls! In "Yesterday" there are no drums. That's not normal. I think these deviations from the norm are what makes a song exceptional.

My choice for the perfect song would probably be "Thunder Road." Beautifully orchestrated, tells a wonderful love story, totally hummable, and gets you in the mood for it the second you hear the opening chords.

And finally, how is it that Kathy thinks the weird part of "Baby O'Riley" is the beginning? What about the violin solo representing a male orgasm at the end? That is CLEARLY the weird part.

(And yes, Pete Townsend entered Meher Baba--some 60s hippie guy--into his synsthesizer's computer, and it kicked out the now-famous beginning of the song.)

ChuckJerry said...

"Thunder Road" is a perfect song. I'll wholeheartedly agree with that.

Like I said at the beginning, it's not a complete theory. More of an idea that hasn't quite completely fulminated. I could be completely wrong.

I am convinced, however, that there exist several "perfect songs", and that "Yesterday" and also "Thunder Road" are among them. And the more I think about it, "Brown Eyed Girl" is also on the list.

Max said...

Isn't it true that McCartney thought of the melody of "Yesterday" first, and then put in the lyrics? I thought I'd heard somewhere that initially, just to have some lyrics, he arbitrarily picked the words "Scrambled Eggs" where "Yesterday" was to try out the music, then thought of the real lyrics later. Not that that makes the song any more or less "perfect".

Anyway, for what it's worth, I'd like to publicly voice an objection to "Thunder Road" being a perfect song. I think it's flawless through the first chorus, but after that the long second verse is full of more generic lines than Kobe Bryant conducting a post-game interview after a big scoring game - and I have a tough time with it as perfection, although I do love the line "your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet".

Thunder Road = 9.9 / 10

Max said...

You know, on second thought, maybe I was tough on the Boss. I need to address this further. I will blog about this on my blog ( - free plug!